Lost and Found: Underrated Short Stories You Should Read

A list of short stories that I think are as good as, or better than, the author’s novels

Short stories are falling out of fashion.

Why doesn’t The New York Times best seller list have a subsection dedicated to the short story form? Why do readers know Stephen King for The Green Mile, but not Strawberry Spring? Why do journals pay very little for short stories, if at all?

In a time where hundreds of novels and films and television programmes can be viewed for free at the tip of your fingers, readers do not want to buy short story journals and magazines. And as consumption of print media falls further into the abyss, the casual reader is galled to pay to view a story online, however reasonable the cost.

In honour of this failing form, below is a list of short stories that might otherwise disappear amidst the swarm of best-selling novels. They represent a snapshot of reality, so poignant that they are truly a credit to their form.

The Summer People

The Summer People

“Characterized by the caprice and fatalism of fairy tales, the fiction of Shirley Jackson exerts a mordant, hypnotic spell.” -Joyce Carol Oates

No doubt The Summer People (1950) is overshadowed by Jackson’s better known short story, The Lottery (1948). First appearing in Jackson’s posthumous collection Let Me Tell You (1950), The Summer People tells the story of the Allisons, a couple who take a cottage for the summer. Like The Lottery, Jackson’s later work explores human nature and herd mentality, albeit in a far subtler way.

‘…the country had never seemed more inviting, and the lake moved quietly below them, among the trees, with the almost incredible softness of a summer picture. Mrs. Allison sighed deeply, in the pleasure of possessing for themselves that sight of the lake, with the distant green hills beyond, the gentleness of the small wind through the trees.’

The Allisons decide to stay longer than they expected at the cottage. Jackson shows her caprice when, after the Allisons decide to stay, the mood swiftly changes. The locals turn from affable and friendly to eerie: they warn the Allisons that no one has ever stayed past Labour day before.

The facade of holiday cottage bliss unravels. Jackson presents a world in which every need: oil, groceries, kerosene, transport, and a landline, are stripped away from the unsuspecting couple. As the storm brews in the sky above the Allisons, the reader begins to wonder what exactly the town is anticipating after Labour day.

Strawberry Spring

Stephen King

Better known for his gruesome novels such as Carrie and Misery, some readers might be surprised to know that Stephen King was a prolific short story writer. Before his story about the telekenetic teen Carrie was turned into a novel, King made his living selling short stories to men’s magazines.

Strawberry Spring shows that King is the master of horror, no matter the form. The narrator gives a detailed account of the on campus murders that occur every Spring. The legend of Springheel Jack follows the story, which the narrator revels in.

‘The blue beetles patrolled the campus ceaselessly on the foggy spring nights of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth, and spotlights stabbed in to dark nooks and crannies with erratic eagerness.’

King’s story, unlike many of his novels (cough IT cough), is so compact that any more details might ruin it. Read Strawberry Spring in ten minutes on your commute to work, and be horrified for the rest of your journey.


Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

“There are all kinds of writers in this world but only a handful of natural ones – ZZ Packer is one of them.” -Zadie Smith

Z.Z Packer’s debut collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003) bursts with life on every page. Not the sort of vivid mish-mash of ideas found in Alice Through The Looking Glass (1871), but the kind of down to Earth realism that makes you imagine every line a character’s crow’s-feet.

The title story explores the intersections between race, class, and identity. Yale freshman Dina struggles through the first year of university with her unlikely companion, the closeted Heidi. Dina exists in a world where she is suddenly transported away from her home life of:

‘…hair salon after hair salon of airbrushed signs promising arabesque hair styles and inch-long fingernails […] every other house had at least one shattered window.’

into an ordered world of books and psychiatrists which, ironically, sends her into a tail-spin.

Packer’s story slips off into nothingness in much the same way that most realistic short stories do: there is no ultimate catharsis, there is no rounding off of events. The white knight does not appear at the end.

Short stories are so satisfying because they are a tightly wound package of what actually happens in the real world, as opposed to sprawling epics. The medium continues on through the works of Jackson, King, and Packer.


Lancaster University Presents: Dunsinane

Dunsinane centers around the discovery that not only is Lady Macbeth still alive, but that she has a son

Dunsinane is David Greig’s take on the aftermath of Macbeth, and the LUTG’s (Lancaster University Theatre Group’s) performance is Gail Breslin’s take on Greig’s script.

Having killed Macbeth, Malcolm (William Evans) ascends the bloody steps to the throne only to discover that Lady Macbeth (Rose Briggs), called Gruach in this version, is still alive. Dunsinane centers around the discovery that Gruach has a fifteen year old son who is the rightful heir to the throne.

I have given suck, and know

How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.

Lady Macbeth

Gruach urges her son to flee to the safety of the woods as Siward (played by Josh Hawley) and his troops invade.

Instructed to secure Malcolm’s place on the throne, Siward mediates between the headstrong Gruach and the tyrannical Malcolm. Hawley plays the part of Siward with poise and control: he is a man focused on restoring peace, and this goal exudes out through words and his composure. The briefest flicker of an eyelid conveys Siward’s irritation, and these minute details are the first sign that there is an underlying anger to Siward, a brilliant foreshadowing on Hawley’s part.

Rose Brigg’s plays a convincing Gruach: her version of Lady Macbeth is headstrong and proud, and her anger is tangible in the moments where her son’s position as King is questioned:

The moon could rise at daytime and we could call it night.

The sun could rise at night time and we could call it day.

My son would still be king.

Tender moments abound.

Interspersed between acts of violence and scenes of bloodshed are pockets of realism in which soldiers one and two (Isaac Rolfe and Jordan Summerfield respectively) sit on a log in the forest and talk about nothing really, but this mindless chatter creates a sense of intimacy amidst the blood shed. Greig brings the audience swiftly back to the 11th century when, having arranged the bodies of his fallen comrades on the forest floor, Solder one frowns and says, ‘He looks pretty much the same as me.’

The Boy Soldier’s (Connor Gould’s) dramatic monologues are addressed to his mother, and are humorous while subtly hinting at the divide he experiences as an interloper in a strange land. At the beginning of the first scene the Boy Soldier exclaims, ‘I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this but Scotland is cold!’ and swiftly moves on to say that in the villages around the castle there is only ‘cold air and the eyes of women.’

Gould conveys the soldier’s hope and melancholy through an assortment of emotions and a booming voice that show he is destined for the stage.

As the second act commences the audience is faced with an abruptly changed Siward: far from the peacemaker he had previously shown himself to be, the Earl of Northumberland turns murderous, enraged by Gruach’s devious nature. All pretense of creating unity is replaced by Siward’s  attempt to eliminate the rightful heir to the throne: Gruach’s son.

The LUTG’s  production of Dunsinane is a triumph of precise casting and adherence to Grieg’s vision. At just £9 per ticket, the production is a bargain for any seasoned theater-goer who appreciates a passion for performance.




Things To Do In Manchester: The Comedy Store

Is The Comedy Club worth the price on the ticket?

The Comedy Store is located at the heart of Manchester: sandwiched between the nightclub ARK and the Japanese restaurant Sakura, this comedy round-up is the perfect compère to a night out in Manchester.

I visited on Saturday, the ‘Best in Stand-Up’ night, and paid £15 for my student ticket. Standard tickets cost £24.50 (including fees). The night was comprised of five comedians:  I was surprised because the website did not mention that the compère is included in the number of acts. There is also the À La Carte ticket option (£44) as well as a ticket which provides guests with a glass of Prosecco for an extra £5.

So, is The Comedy Store worth the price on the ticket?

The atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive: groups of people milled outside the store and around the bar chatting and drinking. The decor is understated, the most striking design being the bright red lips which make The Comedy Store’s logo. Pictures of previous comedians are pinned to the wall, which gives an indication as to The Comedy Store’s long running history and pride.

Polaroid pictures of past comedians are pinned to the wall

There is a charming authenticity to The Comedy Store. The audience sits in a basement in close proximity to the low stage, occasionally straining to hear the comedian over the rumble of the overhead train.

The logo of The Comedy Store was the most striking decoration

The comedians (Danny Mcloughlin, Dane Baptiste, Eleanor Tiernan, and Mike Gunn) tackled the issues of today: insane uncles, the differences between men and women, and inheritance after a bereavement. Mike admitted that when his father buys something, he despairs, wondering what use he will have for it in the future.

Danny, Dane, and Mike handled the hecklers well. In conversation with one of the audience members, Dane said that he did not smoke weed to which the man shouted, ‘Liar!’ His girlfriend turned to look at him accusingly, until the audience member shrugged his shoulders.

Eleanor was far more nervous than the other performers. Her jokes did not land in the way that the other performers’ did. Her one liners seemed to ramble on so much that I forgot the beginning. Her set was just that: a list of one liners, the stories in them not really linked together, at least not as effortlessly as the other comics’.

Mike was by far the best performer. His bawdy, crude humour had the crowd in stitches. He struck a cord by mentioning the sort of things children make at school: egg cartons covered in glitter, lop-sided drawings with the world’s smallest calendar stuck on the bottom. He summed his thoughts up in one question: ‘What the fuck is that?’

Despite a few bumps in the road (short silences, and moments where I wondered if Eleanor had forgotten her next story) The Comedy Club is well worth the price on the ticket. The comedians were so funny, and the atmosphere was so easy, that I felt like I had only been there for ten minutes (the event runs for two and a half hours with a fifteen minute break). If you are still indecisive, there are cheaper tickets. On ‘Stand Up Thursday’ night, standard tickets are just £12, and concessions are only £8.

My only regret is not buying the T-shirt.

‘Must Read’ Books I Hate and What To Read Instead

Alternatives to the ‘must reads’ books you can’t be bothered with

Whenever I go into Waterstones or WHSmith I remember the mile long list of books that I am expected to read (I’m looking at you, Goodreads), and I am filled with the worry that a better read person might ask me if I enjoyed Thomas Hardy’s depiction of injustice in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or Williams’ portrayal of the declining South in A Streetcar Named Desire.

For those of you who feel that the list of ‘must reads’ is just too long, I have chosen some time saving alternatives that are better than the cult classic.

Farenheit 451

Farenheit 4451

Farenheit 451 (1953) follows Montag as he begins to question why he burns books for the government, and wonders what can be gained from a world without accessible knowledge. As his loyalty to his profession deteriorates, Montag becomes enlightened and despises the consumerism he sees around him: he is distainful of his wife’s devotion to the television and her acceptance of whatever the state wants.

In the foreword to Farenheit 451 Bradbury writes that ‘When the first version of the novel was finished, I hardly knew what I had done.’ And I believe him.

The plot rattles from one point to another predictably. At first Montag believes it is ‘a pleasure to burn’ literature, because he enjoys watching the flames bite away at the pages. What follows is a plot twist that anyone could have seen coming: Montag realises that the act of burning books is a way for the state to control the population, to keep them docile, and to keep them ignorant.

I lost interest in Bradbury’s jumpy plot when Montag, now secure in his belief that burning books is an abomination, visits his comrade Faber. Faber greets Montag and introduces him to the ‘audio-capsule,’ the ‘green bullet’ that allows him to communicate with Montag while he is out in the world. Faber is too afraid to join the rebellion himself, and so he will guide Montag through the ear piece.

When Faber exclaims ‘I’ve had this little item ready for months!’ despite them having only met weeks ago, it all became a bit too much for me. Bradbury portrays a man who is torn apart by his desire for enlightenment in the totalitarian world by racing from one plot point to another, not fully developing any strands, and not tying any together.

What To Read Instead:

Morning, Summer Night: The Screaming Woman

Summer Morning Ray Bradbury

The Screaming Woman (1951) follows a young girl as she walks out of her back door only to discover a woman, buried alive and screaming, in the field behind her house. The young girl runs to her father for help. He makes her wait until he has finished his dinner, and then asks why she is so flustered. She tells him that there is a woman buried alive screaming in the back garden.

He says that he has never known a woman that wasn’t.

Bradbury’s short story is succinct and powerful: he explores social constructs far more subtly than he does with Farenheit 451, in which the protagonist’s journey from ignorance to knowledge is glaringly obvious. The Screaming Woman explores intersections between gender, familial relations, and age through Bradbury’s use of a young female protagonist who, dismissed by the masses, takes matters into her own hands.

A Clockwork Orange

A CLockwork Orange.jpg

Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962) follows the fifteen year old protagonist Alex as he leads a gang of criminals through  totalitarian, state ruled England. Burgess’ novel is rife with violence: Alex is imprisoned for the rape of a woman and experiences yet more violence at the hands of an experimental procedure called Ludovico’s technique. In this experiment Alex is injected with a serum which makes him violently ill, and he is then forced to watch dozens of clips of murders, rapes, and assaults. The aim of this experiment is to alter his reaction to violence: he feels nauseous whenever he thinks of committing a crime.

a clockwork orangeee

In a 2002 interview Burgess said ‘It is not the job of the artist to propound messages […] it is merely the task of the literary creator, like the musical creator, to produce shapes, structures.’

It is this focus on shapes, elusive and undefined in the mind of the reader, and the insistence on portraying the characters as card board cut outs, imitations of real people in real situations, that made me bored of A Clockwork Orange. Like Bradbury, Burgess presents his protagonist as a figure who serves to highlight the issues within their futuristic, totalitarian societies, rather than characters in their own right. The characters are barely able to react to the situations themselves before the God-like hand of Bradbury or Burgess swoops down to remind them that they serve the purpose of acting against the state, never relaxing for one moment under the dystopian, totalitarian rule.

What To Read Instead:

Nightmares and Dreamscapes: Suffer The Little Children

nightmares and dreamscapes

Stephen King’s short story Suffer The Little Children (1972) depicts the story of Mrs Sidley, an elderly pre-school teacher who begins to believe that the children she teaches are possessed by demons. Despite King’s story being supernatural in focus, the reader is drawn to the characterisation of Sidley, and the real life aspects of mental decline in old age.

King creates tension leading up to the violence denouement of Suffer The Little Children, and it is this careful use of striking scenes that makes this short story worth a read. The ending is all the more impactful because King has not sprinkled violence throughout. The stative line ‘She killed twelve of them and would have killed them all if Mrs Crossen hadn’t come down for a package of composition paper’ shocks the reader, in that it serves to emphasise the realistic aspects of King’s story.






Cult Classics: Donnie Darko (2002)

’28 days… 6 hours… 42 minutes… 12 seconds. That… is when the world… will end.’

What makes Richard Kelly’s ‘Donnie Darko’ a cult classic?

A Times article stated that: ‘”Cult” used to indicate a secret pleasure, a film you and a select band crept out late at night to see at the scuzziest cinema in town.’ Fatima Fernandez suggests a ‘more including definition‘ in which cult ‘movies were box office-bombs that were rejected by the mainstream media but ultimately embraced by a more obscure audience.’

‘Donnie Darko’  depicts a ‘tangent universe’ (bear with me), a world which is created when the fabric of the fourth dimension becomes corrupt. This new ‘tangent universe’ can only survive for so many weeks on its own before it collapses in on itself under the pressure of the audience’s incredulity.

The seasoned cult fanatic who has read all the information on the (extensive) Donnie Darko website might describe the plot as follows: the majority of Donnie Darko is set in an alternative reality that has been created by a corruption in the fabric of the fourth dimension. In this tangent universe the protagonist (Donnie) is visited by a man in a rabbit costume (Frank) who tells him ’28 days… 6 hours… 42 minutes… 12 seconds. That… is when the world… will end.’ Frank guides him on his journey to send the artifact (the jet engine that falls into Donnie’s bedroom) back to the present universe to stop the corrupt fabric of time destroying the real (present) universe.

donnie darko frank

Frank, an individual who has died in the tangent universe while at a costume party, is one of the ‘Manipulated dead,’ someone who understands that they are operating in an alternative reality. Frank, along with the ‘Manipulated Living,’ further Donnie on his journey to fixing the deteriorating fabric of reality. It should be noted that the ‘Manipulated Dead’ have a greater impact upon Donnie’s journey than the ‘Manipulated Living,’ as the former group have a better understanding of what steps need to be taken to repair the reality vortex.

And breathe.

To add another layer to the Richard Kelly’s narrative, at first Donnie does not understand that he is in an alternative reality. It is only with the aid of Frank and the others that he begins to understand that he alone can stop the world ending in ’28 days… 6 hours… 42 minutes’ and ‘…12 seconds.’ No one could understand such a complicated movie on the first viewing: I only understand it (partially) because Kelly created ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel,‘ a book which one of the characters wrote that is only available on the Donnie Darko website. So what drove the first time audience of Donnie Darko to watch it a second, third, or even fourth time?

Donnie Darko was not well received. The Domestic Total Gross was $517,375, nothing compared to Pulp Fiction’s $107,928,762 gross. Both are cult classic films, so what made Donnie Darko’s reception so poor?

The film was released not long after the September 11th attacks, which meant that there was little advertising by the production company and little desire to see the movie for the American public. It only grossed $110,494 on its opening weekend, and all signs pointed to writer and director Richard Kelly’s second film being a ‘box office-bomb.’

Luckily for Kelly, VHS and DVD saved ‘Donnie Darko.’ In New York the Pioneer Theatre held night time screenings of the film for over two years. Peter Bradshaw attributes the renewed interest in the film to its re-release, stating that ‘Donnie Darko has a political and satirical flavour that wasn’t as strong at the time: it is set in 1988, the chastened end of Ronald Reagan’s comforting reign.’ He does not specify what this political undertone is.

donnie darko halloween

‘Donnie Darko’ seems to more accurately fit in with Fernandez’s suggestion that cult classics do poorly at the box office and are then rejuvenated, although the film has too broad an audience to be considered an ‘obscure’ audience. Maybe ‘Donnie Darko’ would have been an immediate hit if the timing had been better, if the advertising had been stronger. Maybe, as Richard Kelly said about his 2002 science fiction, reality bending story about a 16-year-old boy entrusted with saving reality as we know it, ‘Sometimes films need time to marinate.’


‘The Long Walk’: Stephen King’s Version of a Dystopian World

King’s dystopian world ‘The Long Walk’ operates on an opt-in basis.

While writers like Suzanne Collins and Margaret Atwood define their dystopian worlds by the lack of choice the characters have, Stephen King’s The Long Walk operates on an opt-in basis. In King’s vision of the future his protagonist Raymond Garraty, along with 99 other teenage boys, are chosen from a pool of applicants to participate in the annual long walk, a competition which ends with only one winner: the sole survivor.

The boys are followed by a group of armed guards who give the participants a warning if they walk slower than the stipulated four miles an hour for more than thirty seconds. Three strikes and you are out. In King’s world teens are murdered where they stand in a competition they volunteered for.

The walk is overseen by The Major, and the event is televised in major cities. Swarms of onlookers cheer as the teens become increasingly exhausted and suffer mental fatigue as they see their peers picked off one by one, fearful that it is them next. A day into the walk, Garraty is shocked and pleased to see:

a huge sign, letters with pine boughs across the front read:


Aroostook County Parents’ Association

The reader wonders why thousands of teenage boys subject themselves to the walk, knowing that their chances of winning are infinitesimal. Unlike dystopian novels which present a moral message on the perils of treating women as a commodity (The Handmaid’s Tale), separating society into sectors (Brave New World), and banning the distribution of information (Fahrenheit 451), King does not create the walk for any other purpose than entertainment.

‘Walk or die, that’s the moral of this story.’

King’s story feeds on greed and the demand for engaging television. The boys apply for the walk because the prize is anything they desire, a stake just high enough to risk their life for. The community cheers the walkers on and watches them on television because they have been desensitised to gratuitous violence, and the American desire for more more more leads them to applaud the 100 boys for walking to their death. This twisted desire for entertainment means that Garraty is hailed as an all-American hero, ‘Maine’s own,’ willing to undertake the grueling task of dying for the sake of the public’s enjoyment.

The characters, as young as they are (Garraty is only sixteen), seem to be aware of their dire situation, which makes the premise all the more shocking. One walker asks, ‘There was a guy last year that crawled for two miles at four miles an hour after both of his feet cramped up at the same time, you remember reading about that?’ As the story goes on, King adds the arrogance of 100 teenagers to the list of why the walk was possible in the first place. The reader wonders whether anyone would have signed up to a girls only long walk.

Despite all of this, I am willing to suspend disbelief for a dystopian novel, and especially a dystopian novel as good as King’s. He fleshes out the characters and creates relationships with such realism that the reader is shocked when, having taken three warnings, Olson is murdered by the guards. The reader feels the joy of the walkers when an onlooker manages to give them watermelon without the guards intercepting it.

Like most of King’s novels, the ending is harrowing. Having outlasted his peers and won the walk, Garraty imagines that:

The dark figure beckoned, beckoned in the rain, beckoned for him to come and walk, to come and play the game. And it was time to play the game. There was still so far to walk.

The need for more continues as the delirious Garraty wanders off into the distance, unaware that he has won his prize because he cannot see past the need to go on, to strive for more in a consumerist world where even death has become a commodity that can be sold to the attentive viewer.






Delirium, Hallucinations, And Man’s Insignificance: A Review of ‘Terra Incognita’

None of Nabokov’s intensity is lost in Terra Incognita. The story follows the delirious Valliere (the narrator) and his longtime friend Gregson as they catch insects on their journey from Zonraki to the Gurano Hills. 

I was scanning a book shop shelf for Lolita’s predecessor The Enchanter when I caught sight of a book so slim I almost skimmed right over it. Vladimir Nabokov’s collection Terra Incognita is far from the tomb that is Ada or Ardor: the three short stories come in at under a hundred pages and the title short story Terra Incognita is a tiny fourteen.

Having read Nabokov’s mastery of characterisation in his longer works, I wanted to see what he could do with a shorter medium. None of Nabokov’s intensity is lost in Terra Incognita. The story follows the delirious Valliere (the narrator) and his longtime friend Gregson as they catch insects on their journey from Zonraki to the Gurano Hills.

Accompanied by the Badonians and their translator Cook, the group travel further and further into the forest, with their view of the Gurano Hills being blighted by an overhanging mist. Nabokov’s depiction of delirium is well executed: he maintains the narrator’s voice and progresses the plot whilst also showing that the group’s situation is steadily worsening.

‘I kept telling myself that my head was heavy from the long march, the heat, the medley of colors, and the forest din, but secretly I knew that I was ill.’

As they continue on, Cook and the natives ‘vanished noiselessly’ into the surrounding trees. Nabokov creates a sense of growing terror as it becomes clear that Valliere has little control over the situation: the forest is a life form of its own, complete with ‘monkeys’ that ‘snapped and chattered, while a comet-like bird flashed like Bengal light, crying out in its small, shrill voice’ which adds to the narrator’s disorientation.

The fact that the plot remains a tangible thread throughout the story while the narrator is suffering from hallucinations is a credit to Nabokov’s ability to handle plot constraints. Cook returns, minus the natives, and ‘began to swear that the natives had lead him away by force and had wanted to eat him.’

Valliere, Gregson, and Cook journey on together.

‘I was tormented by strange hallucinations.’

At one point Valliere grows so weak that Gregson insists that he and Cook will carry him the rest of the way. The narrator’s hallucinations convey his desire to transport himself from the forest into Western comfort: at one point ‘A large armchair rose, as if supported from below, out of the swamp.’

Nabokov maintains the dream like qualities of the story until the very end when, having seen Cook and Gregson murder each other, Valliere emerges from his thick film of delirium to see the natural world as it is. The line ‘For the last time I saw all this distinctly, consciously, with the seal of authenticity on everything- their skinned knees, the bright flies circling over them, the females of those flies already seeking a spot for ovulation.’ There is a strange tranquility to Valliere’s death, it is as if he is detatched from the situation and can view the scene like one would view a picture in a book.

Ofcourse, nature triumphs. In the end, Valliere is just a mammal in the forest. Nabokov emphasises the insignificance of man among nature through his depiction of weather such as the overhanging mist which clouds the travelers’ thoughts and disrupts their journey. He shows that humans are ill equipped to deal with the reality that is the thriving forest through the motif of furniture: as Valliere’s health declines he hallucinates armchairs, wallpaper, and the four walls to the imaginary room which symbolises his desire for a more manageable situation.

In the denouement, Valliere is physically unable to escape from the untameable entity that is the forest, and the reader assumes that the flies that crowd Gregson and Cook’s corpses are waiting for Valliere’s, too.